Tracing the local effects of the South China Sea Dispute by Edyta Roszko

The nineteenth century notion of the ‘sovereign state’ brought by Europeans found fertile ground in Asia as it sought a way to liberate itself from the yoke of colonialism. While nowadays Europe is inclined towards more inclusive and porous notions of sovereignty, many Asian countries (China, India and ASEAN) resist this trend by advancing procedures to demarcate and strengthen their borders, thereby posing challenges to inter-regional integration and global politics. In the context of maritime enclosures and global competition over resources, the modern Asian states not only seek to make lands recognizable through mapping but also to incorporate the sea into their geo-bodies.

One of example is the South China Sea, where the interplay between nationalistic and regional tendencies produces a new balance as China’s maritime law dominates as opposed to international law. China’s assertion of exclusive sovereignty involved the conquest or occupation of island, the enforcement of a fishing ban, the confiscation of Vietnamese and Filipino fishing vessels and detention of their crews, and the sabotaging of Vietnamese and Filipino oil explorations. Part of Vietnam’s tactic is to emphasize the status of international waters and the history of free navigation in the South China Sea, which courts the support of major players like the US, India and ASEAN. While most analysts assume that the various claims to the – mostly uninhabited – Paracels and Spratlys and the surrounding SCS are motivated by the presence of submarine mineral resources like oil and gas, the conflicts evoke strong nationalist feelings in various countries, fueled by narratives regarding the historical presence of fisheries.

Downplaying internal differences and contestations, the South China Sea dispute drags the various ASEAN members into an argument against the strongest regional claimant, China. At the same time, the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over maritime sovereignty in parts of the Gulf of Thailand shows that in the absence of a strong outside claimant like China, territorial contestations and national sentiments come to the fore in a heated debate among the ASEAN members. Perhaps at this point, it is worth mentioning another revealing example of such territorial disputes and sentiments of a new-found patriotism: the Bay of Bengal.  Here India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma enforced a fishing ban in their waters, confiscating foreign vessels and detaining their crews in order to secure the supply of marine and especially submarine mineral resources, including oil and gas. In particular, the Palk Strait with its relatively shallow sea-subsection of the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka has emerged as a territory of increasing conflict and violence. Since the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary agreement of 1974 and 1976, agreed upon by the governments of India and Sri Lanka, the whole area has become a heavily contested fishing territory between Tamil fishermen on both sides. For centuries, these two communities enjoyed shared fishing rights and cultivated relations through annual festivals and trade. However, with the demarcation of maritime boundaries based on the concept of national sovereignty, the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen have entered into an acute conflict over the fishing grounds in the Palk Strait.

Following James Scott’s recent study on the highland areas connecting Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, we can conceive of the sea as one of the last zones of ‘non-governance.’  However, in the South China Sea or in the Bay of Bengal this concept is now being challenged due to increasing enclosure by surrounding states. The cases of the two regions are comparable examples of complex maritime disputes in which historic fishing rights are often ignored and fishermen – who inevitably become involved in border making – seem to be instrumentalized by their governments. Paradoxically, different stakeholders may use customary fishing practices as legal arguments in the international conflict, thus affecting enclosures of commons. At the same time, the resulting enclosures suppress the voices and interests of these fishing communities.

One such community is Ly Son Island, to which I had unparallel access during my doctoral field research. Ly Son is an atoll lying close to the Vietnamese mainland and about 400 km west of the Paracel Archipelago. Because of its historical association with the Paracels and Spratlys, Ly Son Island is considered a restricted border zone and an important defensive position to Vietnam. From 1974 onward, when Chinese forces overran a South-Vietnamese military station on the Paracels, China and Vietnam have confronted each other over the control of the Paracels and Spratlys, resulting in the sinking of three Vietnamese naval ships by Chinese forces in 1988. After the discovery of submarine deposits of natural oil and gas, China does not only claim the islands, but seeks to extend its sovereignty over the entire continental shelf, hoping to incorporate the South China Sea and its mineral and marine resources under its control. Ly Son Islanders directly bear the historical, geopolitical and economic consequences of the dispute. The already difficult economic situation of Ly Son Island worsened when the Chinese navy denied Ly Son fishermen the rights to use fishing grounds near the Paracels which for generations they had considered their own. Moreover, its sensitive ‘border’ location also hampered other forms of economic development, like international tourism.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese State turned its attention towards Ly Son as a valuable source of information about the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) navy, which was established by the Nguyen lords around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Nguyen dynasty continued to carry out naval activities there. In 2001 the state issued a directive establishing a commemorative site for the two flotillas. Facing competition from China over control over the archipelagos, the Vietnamese Party-State chose to frame its claims to sovereignty not in economic terms but with reference to historical, emotive stories of Vietnamese sailors who shed their blood on the islands. At the same time, Vietnam does not seem much concerned about  Ly Son fishermen being denied free access to the fishing grounds on which they depend. Consequently, Ly Son fishermen feel abandoned by the central State, who has a stake in maintaining good diplomatic and political relations with its main trading partner and the region’s dominant military force, China.

The transformation of the political and ecological environment, livelihood and the culture of fishing communities due to the recent territoralization of the sea calls for a deeper knowledge of how local people deal with coastal and environmental damage of marine areas, which are important factors in the loss of the ecological basis for their livelihoods. This is an important question since the growing impact of global competition over energy security, overfishing and the destruction of marine resources via unsustainable forms of coastal development give rise to speculation over the global and local consequences of this process. As such, the need exists for deeper knowledge about the growing competition over marine resources and its consequences on coastal communities and local ecologies in developing countries, where small-scale fisheries are still central in providing people’s food and economic welfare.

Edyta Roszko. “From Spiritual Houses to National Shrines: Religious Traditions and Nation-Building in Vietnam,” East Asia: An International Quarterly, vol.29. no 1 March 2012, pp. 25-41.


________. “Commemoration and the State: Memory and Legitimacy in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol.25. no. 1 (April 2010), pp.1-28.

What does the Bo Xilai scandal tell us about China’s political system?

A little more than a year ago, I offered an analysis on this blog of the likelihood that the color revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa would trigger a similar movement in China (

One year later, the Chinese one-party regime is once more facing challenges, and once again it is a matter of debate how severe these challenges are. This time, regime stability is endangered not by social unrest among the alienated mass public, but by divisions within the ruling elites themselves. As a large body of scholarship on regime change dynamics shows, regime disintegration far more often results from splits among the ruling elite than from popular protests. A united leadership can weather even severe public opposition, but elite splits can cause the collapse of a regime even in the absence of popular challenges to its leadership.

Once more, I think that this crisis will pass and leave the one-party regime intact–in all likelihood, it has already passed. Nevertheless, this is a good time to take stock of what we know about the “Bo Xilai scandal” and examine its significance. I will sum up the various interpretations of the fall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai who, before his dismissal, had been slated for a seat on China’s topmost political decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These accounts, which mostly focus on the actors involved and their individual interests and provide explanations specifically pertaining to the leadership change scheduled for this fall, are widely compatible. Based on these accounts, I draw on established theories of autocratic regime maintenance to more generally highlight what this event tells us about the state of China’s political system.


I will start with the facts as they are known to the public. The affair started with a fall-out between Bo Xilai and Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, who had fled the city dressed as a woman and sought refuge in the Chengdu consulate of the United States. After leaving the embassy, Wang was escorted to Beijing by agents of the Ministry of Public Security. He has not been heard of since then. In March, Bo Xilai was first removed from his posts in Chongqing, and one month later dismissed from the Politburo on account of “serious discipline violations”. The Bo family is being investigated for corruption, and Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, is facing charges of manslaughter. Allegedly, Wang Lijun carried information that Gu Kailai killed Neil Heywood, a British businessman with close connections to the Bo family.

Given the proximity of this event to the leadership transition planned for late 2012 and the scarcity of reliable information about what triggered these events and how they unfolded, speculation about what really happened and what it all means is rife. The fact that the breaches of discipline Bo allegedly engaged in have not been detailed by the government, and that unverified details are added to the story on a daily basis, allows for a range of possible explanations.



The most commonly accepted explanation, both within China and abroad, is that of a power struggle between different factions within the CCP, notably between the “Princelings”, i.e. descendants of famed revolutionaries, and politicians formerly associated with the CCP’s Youth League. According to rumor, a clique of politicians around former President Jiang Zemin have allied with the princelings. The deeper meaning of this explanation is that the procedures of leadership transition in China are less institutionalized than we believed.

Another explanation focuses more on individuals than on groups and claims that Bo Xilai teamed up with the CCP’s topmost security official Zhou Yongkang, to not only elate Bo into the PBSC, but to install him as Zhou’s successor as head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee. As China’s security apparatus has grown increasingly powerful in the last years, this explanation suggests that CCP hardliners attempted a soft coup against moderate forces within the Party. Rumors of an actual coup attempt in March, and further rumors that Bo eavesdropped on President Hu Jintao continue to keep this hypothesis alive.

A third explanation is centered on the challenge that Bo Xilai’s popularity posed for the institution of collective leadership. In contrast to the members of China’s top decision-making body, Bo Xilai has great charisma, and has gained fame not only for his hard stance against organized crime, but also for reviving Maoist traditions and for implementing pro-poor policies. This has made him popular to the extent that charges of populism and egotism were leveled against him. Shortly before Bo was sacked, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered an unusually emotional speech, warning against leftist tendencies in the Party. Though not mentioning him by name, it is clear that this speech, which also pointed out that such policies marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, was directed against Bo Xilai.

A fourth explanation, the one least popular with observers, is the official one: Bo Xilai is guilty of breaching the law, not more and not less. All candidates for a seat on the PBSC are subject to thorough background checks, and it is claimed that in this process evidence of corruption surfaced. This explanation, though hardly credible – Bo had been in the Politburo for some time and would have undergone a background check before being admitted to this elite organization – is favored by the officials as it makes the Party look strong instead of weak: the rule of law is upheld, and dirty elements are filtered out. By extension, it suggests that corruption is not systemic, but confined to individuals, upholding the image that the CCP’s leadership stratum is generally free of corruption and that people like Bo are an exception rather than the rule.


Different as these explanations are, they have one thing in common: with the exception of the official position, all other accounts interpret this episode as a power struggle in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. Observers have long been divided over the question if China’s leadership transition is formalized and institutionalized, according to political scientists an important precondition for regime stability, and this episode seems to confirm the position of the skeptics.

While not directly challenging this position, I would like to argue for a more refined stance. If we understand institutionalization as establishing formal or informal rules to regulate a process or an outcome that are widely known and commonly followed, we will find that the process of selecting the new leaders is not institutionalized, but leadership change itself is: although both the previous transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and the present transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping have been mired in factionalist struggles, Jiang eventually yielded the reins of power to Hu, and Hu, after the specified ten years, will yield them to Xi. This process might have been disorderly, but the transition itself has never been in question. In a related manner, one might argue that by removing Bo, the collective leadership eliminated a threat to its existence and thus proved that it is functioning better than might be assumed.

While it is tempting to relate the Bo Xilai scandal merely to the issue of leadership succession, I see additional significance elsewhere. In my opinion, this episode highlights a fundamental problem in the Chinese political system: it is in need of reforms too far-reaching to be tackled within the present leadership setup. This results from a fundamental paradox in the consolidation of authoritarian regimes: in order for an autocracy to survive, leadership change needs to be institutionalized. On the other hand, however, the more the mechanisms for picking successors from one’s own ranks become institutionalized, the less likely it is for persons with very different policy outlooks to enter the leadership stratum. In China, not the incoming, but the outgoing leaders decide on policy directions, and these directions are always the result of a compromise. In my opinion, Bo Xilai’s character and policies appealed to those who would like to see a more decisive approach not only to the fundamental problems China is currently facing, but also to how China is governed. Hence, Bo’s rise challenged not only the current leadership’s incremental approach to solving China’s problems, but also the institution of collective leadership itself. Therefore, the episode signifies more than simply a recurring struggle for leadership – it is the result of an inflexible struggling to muster enough strength to cope with major problems without changing the status quo.

This requires some explanation. While Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and to a lesser degree Jiang Zemin, wielded considerable power in deciding the direction of Chinese politics, their successors are far weaker in this regard. Hu Jintao needs to subject himself to the decisions collectively made by the nine-member PSBC, and this will most likely not be different for Xi Jinping. More importantly, the outgoing leadership has already decided the main policies for the coming years. Arguably, this causes policies to be far more cautious and less far-reaching than before. This situation is rendered even more difficult by the fact that governing China has become increasingly complex.

As a result, it has become very challenging to make fundamental changes both within and to the established decision-making routines. Most observers agree that endemic corruption and the influence of special interests on policy-making hinders the solution of problems like income inequality, environmental pollution and the protection of intellectual property rights, all of which need to be addressed for China’s economic growth to continue. Whereas the current leadership has, so far without much success, attempted to reform this increasingly sclerotic system from within, Bo Xilai promised radical alternatives to these piecemeal reforms and thereby challenged the existing system.

Bo’s charisma and the policies he implemented in Chongqing appealed to a Chinese public that has become increasingly cynical about politics; his style promised a change from the dry technocratic reign of the “nine engineers”, as the PBSC was often dubbed, to a more hands-on and deceivingly simple approach to solving the nation’s severe problems. By their nature, Bo’s charisma and his populist approach to politics stood in direct contradiction to the prevailing impersonal model of collective leadership, and his ouster might very well stem from the realization among the technocrats in the PBSC that the carefully balanced system of collective leadership is likely to be rocked if Bo should ascent into the Party’s highest decision making body. If the stories about Bo’s egocentrism, cruelty, lack of compassion and dictatorial work-style that have recently been lanced in the press are true, this concern was well-founded. However, while this provides additional justification for his removal, one of course wonders why such a dangerous man has been able to make it even this far.

Though certainly not an indicator of the imminent collapse of one-party rule in China, this episode nevertheless marks a crucial moment in Chinese politics. For the first time, the major reforms that are undoubtedly necessary will not be pushed through by a small number of strong individuals, but need to be engendered by collective fiat. On the one hand, the moment seems fortuitous: the current shake-up presents a unique chance to implement reforms that make the system more responsive to public demands. This will be more difficult as politics turn back to normal. On the other hand, however, it is unclear who exactly should seize this opportunity, as the Bo episode conveyed a very clear signal that too much personal initiative can be dangerous. In the absence of reform, power can always be maintained by repression and the control of public opinion. Either option, within-system reform and repression, has proponents in the current leadership, and it is utterly uncertain onto which path the new leadership will embark.

Christian Göbel
Senior Lecturer
Department of Political Science, Lund University

China in Global Climate Change Politics

One of the paradoxes that COP17 left us with to solve is that of how to really understand China as a global climate change player. China has become more and more sure of herself both politically and economically  in any global setting. But when it comes to global climate change politics, we see a very careful and non-committing China. At home China is, however, doing quite a lot to transform the Chinese economy from brown growth to green growth as the recent five-year plan revealed as well as the figures for investments in renewables, where China is among the biggest investors in the world and leading in some technologies. Why is it then so difficult for China at the global stage to act more in accordance with national actions? The world would surely welcome it! More than that, the world expects it, and is not late to shame China for any failures in global negotiations as happened after the breakdown of COP15. Here, it is not so important whether or not China was to blame, the point is, that Chinese leaders were very surprised and had a hard time understanding this negative campaigning. At COP16 and COP17 it was clear that China had done a lot to prevent a similar negative campaigning. Chinese public statements about Chinese climate policies has since become very positive and open – but they still sound hollow as only national not global action is taken by China. And the world has become increasingly aware that other important players should also be held accountable for the lack of success in global climate talks; namely the USA, Canada, India and Russia.

Much of the confusion over China can be found in misperceptions over Chinese international policies and priorities. (Communist) China is still a relatively young actor in global politics, and on many issues, the Chinese position seems to be: leave domestic matters for ourselves to work out. A question of classic sovereignty as defined by Morgenthau. Chinese leaders make us believe that China is indeed a unitary actor. So when China is put under international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and commit to a global legally binding agreement, many fail to understand how fragmented China really is, and how difficult it is for China to undertake a needed transformation from a coal based to a sustainable economy.

And although climate change politics is one of the Chinese leadership’s main concerns, it is primarily a domestic concern related to three interlinked issues; energy security, sustainable economic development, and social stability and progress. China’s primary international concern is, however, to protect China’s sovereignty. Within China there are many diverging interests and understandings of climate change. Regions, cities, Chinese and foreign companies as well as NGO’s each play their different part in China’s economic, social, and environmental development. Officially these non-state actors cannot play a role in Chinese foreign policy, but they are still part of what frames the international understanding that China is becoming greener, because the green actors and the central government have an interest in showcasing their green development – thereby attracting investments or gaining other co-benefits such as better public health.

Other actors in the coal industry and the majority of the production economy dependent on cheap and accessible energy should also be taken into account. These actors protect their vested interests and fight against moving too fast from a brown to a green economy. And coal is still by far the largest energy source in China.

So there are many incentives for the Chinese leaders to present China as green and going green, but it is far harder to achieve, because of the fragmented domestic scene.

The major reason, however,  for Chinese lack of global commitment is that an eventual implementation of a global legally binding climate change agreement will clash with priority number one: sovereignty. And it will furthermore have enormous consequences for China’s role in the developing world.

In the global institutional framework being negotiated there is a pressure from most of the developed world, including USA and Canada, to agree on a global standardisation of how to measure and report GHG levels and reductions. The argument is simple and persuasive: If we don’t have the same measures globally we will not be sure that we’re doing enough – we won’t even be sure about what needs to be done. This principle is called MRV – Measure, Report, Validate – and this clashed with the Chinese understanding of sovereignty in such a degree, that China is fighting the principle of MRV with all means. The Chinese leaders all to vividly imagine what the consequences would be, if an international corps of GHG-controllers were allowed to enter China and validate the Chinese statistics with access to even the smallest coal plant and factory. This in itself is not so scary, but the dangers are many; Chinese statistics could be full of mistakes (deliberate or not), which would mean more international shaming, but the biggest danger is that the principle of the international community gaining access to China to validate progress on a certain policy area means that soon enough, human rights would be mentioned as the next area.

A different kind of consequence of a Chinese commitment to a global legally binding agreement is that of a change in definitions of equity. One of China’s main arguments against Chinese commitment is framed as common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) meaning basically that climate change is a global problem and common for all to share the burden, but the developed world must bare the biggest burden and do most since historically and per capita the developed world is more responsible, etc.

China is still aligned with the developing world on this issue. But if China really opened up for discussions on binding commitments, equity and CBDR would have to be reinterpreted; by asking if equity is the same for all developing countries – are there not a substantial difference between the small island states and e.g. China, which would then – more true to China’s economic size and growth rates categorise China as an emerging economy? It would split up the world in many more categories than just the developed and developing countries with a much more differentiated understanding of responsibility than is currently attached to the principle of equity and CBDR.

Furthermore, a China with a different global identity will probably lose her ability to act as a leader of the developing world in international forums like the UN. And China would lose her status as a developing country within the WTO, which would mean losing benefits of subsidies, the ability to keep tariffs. And maybe China would also be more easily pressured into letting the currency float. This is in this light we must understand Obama’s phrasing of China as a grown-up.

So for all these reasons and Chinese imaginations of “what could go wrong”, China is doing what is possible domestically but resisting a global legally binding agreement on fighting climate change.

Lau Blaxekjær
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
Copenhagen University

Political blogs in China: the case of Han Han by Jesper Schlæger, PhD Fellow Copenhagen University

Blogs1 have become a way for people to express personal opinions online, and in China the “blogosphere” is turning into an arena for political debate. This stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese state media which, not surprisingly, usually present the officially acceptable version of social events. Self-censorship among journalists and editors is well-known, and consequently public debate does not really take place in the newspapers or on TV. In that context, the new media with their capability of user generated content provides opportunities for expression of beliefs and values that would previously have remained in the private sphere. To be sure, political blogs bring something new into the public sphere.

What is the role of political blogs in China?
This case study introduces the phenomenon of political blogs through one particular example, namely the blogger Han Han2. His blog has been the most debated political blog in China, and it serves as an extreme case which in the clearest possible way
brings out the new political dynamics. The blogpost printed below can serve as a basis for
discussing the role of political blogging in politics and more specifically if it can be used for
In the “blogosphere” one of the superstars is the mentioned blogger Han Han (韩寒) who was born in 1982. He is first and foremost an author and also a race car driver. He dropped out of high school to pursue a career as writer, and before he started blogging he had already gained fame through his books. His blog is called Twocold and can be found on the Sina-website in the Culture section. It is an extremely popular blog with more than 481 million visits (as of June 2011). The name of the blog refers to his name Han which means “cold”. As the sound is repeated in his name (Hán Hán) it sounds like cold pronounced twice – hence Twocold. Normally, for any single of his blog entries there will be around one million hits and 10-20,000 comments. It is possible for other blogs to present such numbers at special occasions but not for every posting, and so the blog has further
fuelled his celebrity status in China. Even so, he has chosen not to participate in public or media events apart from writing his own blog. Still, this does not stop the tabloid newspapers and magazines from writing about him much in the same way as about any pop-star. In addition to the blog, Han Han has opened his own web-shop, where he sells signed copies of his books. He also edited a magazine called Soloist Ensemble (独唱团) which was only published in one volume and then then authorities put so much pressure on him that the second volume was cancelled.

On the blog he debates many different things such as literature, movies, car racing, and the list continues. There is no topic too big or small to be discussed, but they have a thing in common namely that they somehow address social issues of China today. His initial debates were on the role of literature in society in which he launched fierce and sometimes personal attacks against other writers. In the last few years he has been commenting on just about each and every major social topic. His language resembles spoken language, and often it is ripe with imagery such as when he likens government buildings to prostitutes because of their instantly recognisable style. This brings up another reason for its popularity: There is a strong element of criticism of the political system in his writing.

Han Han’s blog makes political statements which go further than is usually accepted by the
authorities. He questions the fundamental principles of the Communist party-state, the legitimacy of their rule, and the role of citizens. The authorities have a hard time, because the number of followers makes it very difficult to shut his blog down. The fear is that it would create large protests, an unpleasant thing for a government which is generally very concerned with its public image. Han Han’s posts are sometimes initially posted with very critical content, and will hence be ordered removed. In spite of that, before the police orders the original post removed it has already been copied to several other locations and multiply in a way that makes it practically impossible for the censors to do anything about it.

Often, bloggers’ importance are measured by the number of visits or comments, and in Han Han’s case it is obvious that a lot of people regularly read his blog posts. Even so, as is well-known from user produced content websites, the quality of the comments is varying. Let us take the Shame on  Baidu blogpost as a concrete example. This blogpost has 10,127 responses (12 June 2011). The first comments read like this:
Sina Mobile User 2011-03-25 15:28:12:
Go Han Han!!!!!!
56606632 2011-03-25 15:28:19:
No. 1?
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
Political blogs in China: the case of Han Han
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
If Not Clean Don’t Disturb 2011-03-25 15:28:33:
Invasion of red fruit
Musangma Yeye 2011-03-25 15:28:42:
(A cartoon image of a rabbit)
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
So fast, wow!
Radius_Ukiyo 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:53:

The first many pages of comments continue in this vein with a number of people commenting on the feeling of being close to Han Han, simply because they post their comment shortly after the original posting. After some time a number of comments get more substantial in relation to the discussion, but the quality of the “debate in the public sphere” can be questioned. Nevertheless, the impact of the blog is only partly to be found in the comments on the blog itself. Equally important is that people read it and take up some of the points in other connections, e.g. on their own blogs. They are inspired by Han Han’s clear and easily understandable statements. Copying, posting links to his blog, using his phrases are all examples of ways his ideas are taken up by “netizens” and through them shape the public discourse. And this is important to notice, because government is to
an increasing extent using netizens’ opinions as a gauge on public opinion.
In conclusion, Han Han’s blog is an illustration of how the Internet has facilitated pluralism in society. This also includes a broadening of the scope and depth of political issues which can be discussed. Through the Internet, bloggers like Han Han gain a medium which can provide them with a very broad base of followers who can make it difficult for government to entirely shut them down. On the other hand, even though Han Han’s blog is often edited by authorities, it is not censored beforehand which means that some of his critical messages and ideas escape to cyberspace before the censors manage to react.
1 The term “blog” comes from web-log and refers to an online chronological publication of thoughts and web-links.
2 Biographical information based on:
Han Han’s blog:

Elections but no “flower revolution” in Laos

By Kristina Jönsson
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Lund University.

Elections tend to receive a lot of media attention these days—Laos being an obvious exception. Still, in recent months two elections have taken place in Laos, one to the National Assembly (NA) and one to the Party Congress. Even if they by nature do not deliver any major surprises, they still say something about politics in Laos.

The election to the Lao National Assembly was held on April 30. Out of 190 candidates 132 members were elected—all were pre-selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party except five independent candidates. Of the elected members 31.8% were from the government and 68.18% from local authorities (75% were male and 25% female, a bit short of the goal to have 30% women in the Assembly). According to the newspaper Vientiane Times, the election results were quite impressive—99.6% of the eligible voters cast their ballots (!), and the “voters showed great enthusiasm in exercising their political rights to ensure qualified personnel elected to the NA”. In June the National Assembly will formally adopt the new government.

But those being familiar with Lao politics know that the real policymakers were elected already in March at the 9th Party Congress. At the congress 576 delegates represented 191,780 party members nationwide (out of a 6 million population), and they re-elected the 75-year old Choummaly Sayasone—also president of the country—as party secretary general. Members to the Politburo (11) and the Central Committee (61) were also elected. Interestingly, an increasing number of the elected members hold doctoral degrees.

It is quite obvious that the elections, which take place every five years, will not lead to any radical changes in politics or in power dynamics. However, it is expected that a new and younger generation of party technocrats gradually will take over the leadership of the ruling party, which probably will allow for more open discussions. Already now corruption and complaints of inefficient implementation of laws are being publicly discussed. But of course political opposition is still not allowed and media is under state control.

Economic circle in Indochina. Click here for larger picture. Picture by Kristina Jönsson.

A perhaps more significant dimension of Lao politics is the relationship with China and Vietnam. In December 2010, the previous Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh unexpectedly resigned, and Thongsing Thammavong, previously National Assembly president, assumed the post. Some analysts say the change indicated a shift from China towards Vietnam—while others say that would be to miss nuances of Lao politics. There could be some truth in it though, as the presence of China in Laos has increased in recent years through business collaboration and large infrastructure projects but also in other fields, such as education and training. The Lao population has voiced their concern about the “invasion” from the big neighbour in the north, and it is possible that the leadership wanted to address this in some way.

The biggest challenge facing Lao policymakers today is how to develop the country economically. Laos is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, and the aim of the government is to lift Laos from the least-developed nation status by 2020—primarily through selling off natural resources, such as timber, mining and hydropower. At the party congress in March, the party approved measures to “boost” the development (further). Laos has experienced a high economic growth the last few years and is expected to continue this year (7%- 8% GDP growth rate). But many worry about the management of the big influx of foreign investments and about environmental consequences. Take the Xayaburi dam building for example. Laos wants to become “the battery of the region” through the exploitation of hydropower—primarily by selling electricity to Thailand and Vietnam. However, the neighbouring countries, and environmentalists alike, have increasingly challenged this strategy. There are already four dams in China (and four more are planned), but Xayabury would be the first dam to affect the lower Mekong and the consequences are feared to be devastating.  A report by the Mekong River Commission, of which Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are members, states that 23-100 fish species are endangered and consequently also the livelihood and food security of the people in the region, as fish migration will be disrupt. In addition, soil will not reach the presently very fertile Vietnamese Mekong delta. Laos has reluctantly agreed to postpone the construction of the Xayaburi dam after the criticism, but for how long is not clear. The plan is to develop 70 hydro projects, 10 are already in operation and five are under construction—only in Laos!

The pressure on the government is mounting. Economic development is a top priority, but the road towards a higher income level is bumpy. Inequalities are increasing in Laos, even if poverty reduction has been successful at an aggregate level, and the government eventually needs to cater for all people not to loose legitimacy. In other words, the government needs to balance between economic development of the country and the development of its people—and to keep up good relations with the neighbouring countries at the same time. We may not expect any “flower revolution” in a foreseeable future, but that does not mean that there are no (political) changes in Laos. They are just expressed in a more subtle way than in many other places.


Are the "flower revolutions" in the Middle East and North Africa endangering stability in China? by Christian Göbel

These are fascinating times, as the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East might well be the beginning of a “Fourth Wave” of Democracy. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once likened clustered incidences of democratizations to “waves”. After the apparent ebbing out of the “Third Wave”, which between 1974 and the early 1990s swept over Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the time might have come for another democratic push. As a political scientist studying stability and instability of authoritarian regimes, I am extremely interested in the events that are currently unfolding, and as a China scholar, I naturally wonder if China will be caught in that wave should it occur.


To start with, it is quite significant that the current events in Northern Africa and the Middle East are not simply instances of political change, but revolutions, masses rising up to overthrow oppressive and often corrupt regimes. They are happening in regimes that, no matter their actual problems, were perceived as stable (which is also why we did not see the protests coming). They were long-lived, lacked an organized and visible opposition, their leadership appeared united, and the people were aware and afraid of the significant capacities to repress social discontent. That mass protests took place there despite these structural inhibitions means that theoretically, they could take place in China as well, something which some observers are predicting (and perhaps hoping for) and which no doubt the Chinese government is very much afraid of. Of course, one important question is if Chinese citizens have reasons to protest, another if they would like to see the regime gone. Both will be addressed below, but suffice it to say here that the developments in the Middle East have taught the Chinese leadership to take the repeated calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China very seriously. This is why it has displayed a massive show of government force at designated protest sites instead of taking a laissez-faire approach and trusting the legitimacy it has been building up for three decades now.


In a related manner, one might argue that social protests are nothing new in China, and that they even serve as a pressure valve for the regime. For years, we have seen an increase in the number of local protests, and most of these protests are directed against specific grievances. In my opinion, these protests are not system-threatening because they are localized, issue-specific and signify that the population still has trust in the central government to address these grievances. The “Jasmine Revolution,” however, is very different, as it addresses systemic deficiencies, is coordinated and encourages demonstrations all over China. In addition, the Chinese government has a very hard time dealing with the ambiguity of the movement: on the hand, the organizers profess that they do not want to overthrow the government, but to peacefully express society’s discontent with rising food prices, corruption and more generally the lack of government accountability. On the other hand, the term is deliberately borrowed from movements trying to unseat the governments in their respective countries.


When the riots in Tunisia started in December 2010, I doubted that they would spread to China. My argument was that in contrast to Tunisia (and perhaps most of the other countries recently gripped by protests), the last 30 years have not only seen unprecedented economic growth, but also important legal and political reforms. Despite continuing social inequality, life has improved for nearly everyone in China. Having seen the protests spread into bastions of authoritarianism like Egypt and Bahrain, I am not so sure anymore if this, while true, really matters. The protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East come at a very bad time for the Chinese rulers and could inspire protests in China as well.


Not only the recent hike in food prices and the looming real estate bubble, but more fundamentally the continuing revelations about poisoned food, fake medicine, environmental degradation and other issues that directly concern personal well-being are taken very seriously by all strata of the Chinese population. Many citizens blame the government for being too lax against these crimes, and suspect that corrupt officials are protecting those responsible for them. These and other cases of corruption and favoritism, which are all documented on the internet, draw, as blogs and comments show, an increasingly irate virtual audience. The developments in the Middle East might well inspire parts of this audience that a turn-out in great numbers will pressure the government to seriously address these issues.


This explains why there is potential for wide-spread and non-issue specific protest, even if it is not aimed at overthrowing the government. Why, then, the paranoia of the Chinese government? What probably troubles those in power are two things. First, although the Chinese people might be grateful to the CCP for the improvements in livelihood they have enjoyed in the previous 30 years, they might not be sure if the CCP is able to continue delivering these goods under the present system. Just like in 1989, protests aimed at systemic deficiencies might develop into protests directed against the system itself, simply because the system, lacking channels of political accountability and competition, does not allow for an institutionalized input of public discontent. Discourse within the movement might lead to a radicalization of demands and aims, which is especially likely if the government does not react adequately to the challenges presented by these groups. This is closely connected to a second issue, the regime’s conflict capacities.


Hierarchical organizations such as the Chinese security apparatus find it very difficult to deal with symbolism, satire, and ambiguity more generally. Their organizational thinking revolves around different kinds of threats, and the more evolved an organization is, the more threat scenarios it will have worked out, and the more responses to each threat it will have planned. Problems occur when an event that is not threatening to the regime is treated as one that is, as violent reactions against non-violent protests always prove the protesters right. Arresting a man for laying down a white flower at the McDonald’s in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, beating and detaining foreign journalists reporting on a (non-)event, or blocking the word “jasmine” on the internet invites not only accusations of over-reaction, but also mockery of the regime. Such events might easily escalate, leading to even harsher responses and finally massive resistance against a regime perceived as unduly coercive.


While it is by no means certain that wide-spread protests will materialize in China, the government’s precautions illustrate that it is afraid of them and does not rule them out. The coming weeks and months will be interesting, as they will provide us with important insights into the capabilities of the CCP regime to deal with crises. One thing, however, we have already learned. The hard resolve to nip the peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” in the bud shows us just how unsure the CCP regime is about the amount of legitimacy, trust and goodwill it really enjoys among the people of China.


Christian Göbel, PhD
Research Fellow
Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies
Lund University 


Still Repairing Chinese-Japanese Relations by Asger Røjle Christensen

Yes, there has been a serious crisis recently between China and Japan.

The collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coastguard patrol boat close to the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, prompted both countries to take drastic measures which resulted in China canceling a number of high-level ministerial meetings between the two countries. But no, this doesn’t imply that the region is on the brink of open confrontation. It doesn’t disturb the general trend towards a more pragmatic cooperative attitude from both sides.

Junichiro Koizumi held the post of Prime Minister in Japan from 2001 until 2006. During the Koizumi years, relations between the two major powers of East Asia were indeed truly paralyzed. By visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where 14 Japanese war criminals are still revered, Koizumi brought exchanges between high-level officials in the two countries to a halt for several years. At that time, the fact that the two major powers stopped communicating did indeed have serious implications for the region.

There are so many important issues that are universal in this globalized world. In order to face these issues there needs to be a dialogue in order to make things happen. That counts for environment, climate, energy, and also trade and financial matters.

The economic and political elites of both countries know this very well. For this reason, during the Koizumi years the elites in both countries were in fact united in the belief that history is important, but not so important that it be allowed to paralyze things to the extent that it ended up doing at that time.

When Koizumi resigned in 2006, therefore, one of the urgent tasks for his successor was to repair relations with China. Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, who may have been an even bigger hawk than Koizumi, travelled to Beijing within two weeks of being appointed.

Within the next two years, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, and then the president, Hu Jintao, made broadly publicized visits to Japan .

All three visits were major public relations efforts from both governments for the benefit of skeptical populations in both countries. The smiling leaders played table tennis and watched baseball together while the cameras were on, and they obviously seemed to enjoy themselves while talking positively about the bright prospects of further cooperation in the future.

Most importantly, when Wen Jiabao recognized that Japanese leaders have actually apologized profusely on several occasions for the wartime invasions and war crimes committed by the Japanese imperial army, he did it in Chinese at the Japanese parliament, while it was being broadcasted across China and hence aimed at the Chinese public. This was received very well by the Japanese public.

He had finally done on China’s behalf what the then President, Kim Dae-jung, had done on behalf of South Korea ten years earlier. It was indeed a necessary step towards a future with less historical shadows over current relations.

This kind of show from the two governments’ side towards the two populations is extremely important as it is a fact that there is strong resentment towards the other side among the general population in both countries. The elites want to get along; they want to find some kind of working relationship where Japan has a role as neither partner nor rival to the new superpower on the continent, China, but rather something in-between, namely a very important second violin in the orchestra of East Asia.

Hostility among the population is a reality in China as a consequence of history and because new generations being so deliberately reminded about that unfortunate part of the long history.

But hostility among the population is also a reality in Japan where many people still have to adjust to the fact that in contrast to a few decades ago, China is now obviously the major power of the two. There is certainly a market in Japanese bookshops for literature about all kinds of evil intentions being harbored by the Chinese leadership.

The tough and shrill Chinese reaction to some of the recent crises, specifically the crisis following the September ship collision, has made even many liberal-minded and traditionally pro-China Japanese highly irritated about the conduct and intentions of their big neighbor. The new Japanese government has been harshly criticized for being too soft on China and too soft in the arrested Chinese captain; a criticism emanated across the political board in Japan.

Whenever there is a crisis in the relations between the two countries, one tends to focus on Chinese public opinion, but maybe we should also focus a little bit on avoiding a situation whereby developments on the Japanese side increase the risk of further political tensions.

Apparently, the two governments still have the important task of convincing their own people that the other side is not that bad after all. And to some degree they have a common understanding about this, in spite of all the harsh words during the peak of any crisis.

It is worth noting that on the very first day of the anti-Japan demonstrations in China last fall, the Japanese foreign minister publicly thanked the Chinese government for deliberately avoiding even bigger and more violent demonstrations.

At the same time the business community and civil society are busily shaping a future with much more integration between the two neighboring countries than one would expect considering the frequent political crises and the general public debate in the two countries.

Companies are busily hiring the brightest young people from each other’s country; students, from China at least, are busily applying to study in Japan; and young Chinese and Japanese backpackers are filling up the cheap hotels each other’s country.

In the end, it is these developments that will change the relations between the two countries much more effectively than any political developments ever will. In the meantime, in the aftermath of the crisis late last year, the politicians in both Japan and China once more have some repair work to do.



Asger Røjle Christensen,

Journalist, Danish Broadcasting Corporation,

NIAS associate Senior Fellow